In spring 2013, Will Schmidt underwent a colonoscopy after blood work showed he was extremely anemic.
Once the anesthesia had worn off, the father of three young children learned that he had a large mass in his colon, which the doctor said "was probably cancer."
"It was pretty alarming, but I wasn't completely surprised given my family history," Will says. His brother had been diagnosed with rectal cancer at age 21, their father had been diagnosed with colon cancer in his 30s and died of spinal cancer in his 40s, and his paternal great-grandmother had died of colon cancer.
Additional tests confirmed Will's colon cancer diagnosis. The doctor suggested a couple of places where Will could receive colon cancer treatment, including MD Anderson.
"As soon as MD Anderson was mentioned, I thought, why would I go anywhere else?" Will recalls.
"From knowing other people who'd beaten cancer that were treated at MD Anderson, we knew this was the best possible care that Will could get," adds his wife, Dawna.An atmosphere of hope
From the moment the Schmidts walked into MD Anderson, they were overwhelmed by the atmosphere of hope. "There was just this genuine feeling that this is beatable," Will recalls.
His doctor confirmed that Will had stage 2 colon cancer and scheduled him for surgery. After that, he'd undergo six months of chemotherapy.
"My doctor was so genuine, matter-of-fact, straight-forward and confident about what was going to happen," Will recalls. "We felt like family when we came in."
Dawna agrees. "We felt like they knew us. I'm not an optimist, but after meeting with Will's care team, I really felt peaceful and optimistic about everything."
During the surgery, Will had more than 40 lymph nodes removed, along with part of his colon. Every lymph node tested negative for cancer, which meant Will didn't need chemotherapy after all.
"I'm still kind of in shock," Will says. "It's amazing and surreal to know that I came out of this thing so well."Invaluable genetic insight
Will didn't just avoid chemo, though. He also gained new insight that may help other family members avoid cancer altogether, thanks to the genetic counseling and genetic testing he underwent at MD Anderson.
Through genetic sequencing, Will learned that he has Lynch Syndrome, an inherited predisposition to develop certain cancers. Doctors identified the specific protein in Will's DNA that makes him more likely to develop cancer.
"Having this information is invaluable," Will says. "Now I can give this information to my siblings, my aunts and uncles and - when they're old enough -- my kids, so they can undergo genetic testing to find out if they have that same protein, and, if so, get the necessary cancer screening exams and the tests used just for people with Lynch Syndrome."
Will hopes that this knowledge will keep his children and relatives from making the same mistake he did. When his brother was diagnosed with cancer, Will had been told that he needed to start getting frequent colonoscopies because he was at high risk for cancer.
For the first five or six years, he did. "Then life got busy, and I'd think, 'I'll go next year,' or 'I feel fine, there's no need to get tested,' Will says.
"That was one of the most frustrating parts of being diagnosed with cancer -- owning up to the fact that I'd put my life in jeopardy. Colon cancer can be prevented. This could have been avoided if I'd just been getting my colonoscopies."Advocates for personal health and cancer research Though Will didn't initially make his health priority number one, Jason's Deli -- his employer of 18 years - did from the moment they learned of his diagnosis. "They didn't want me to get well for them," Will recalls. "They wanted me to get well for my family."
"They were willing to do whatever we needed to make it as easy on us as it could be," Dawna adds. "They thought of everything from mowing our grass to childcare. I'm so grateful."
The Schmidts' cancer journey, along with those of other Jason's Deli employees, inspired the company to support MD Anderson's efforts to end cancer. Throughout the next year, Jason's Deli will donate 10 cents to cancer research from every specially marked water bottle it sells. The water bottles feature photos of Jason's Deli employees and their families who have been touched by the disease.
The Schmidts feel fortunate to share their story and have their family portrait on these water bottle labels.
"I feel like it's my role now to try to help influence people who are not making their health a priority," Will says. "To be in our situation and come out as good as we have and to have such amazing support, it's indescribable."
"You don't ever think that cancer is something that's going to happen to you or your family. I didn't, even knowing Will's family history," Dawna adds. "But I hope people can look at Will and relate to him and to our family and realize that this can happen to anyone and see the importance of supporting cancer research."
Watch the Schmidts
discuss their colon cancer journey at MD Anderson:
For more information about Jason's Deli's support of MD Anderson cancer research, visit jasonsdeli.com/strike-through-cancer.
Photo by Suzel Roth